What is Your Server Actually Getting Paid?

An image of a charming card left by a restaurant patron in lieu of a tip has been making the rounds:

“As a direct result of Proposition 30 and President Obama’s insistence that I pay MY FAIR SHARE IN TAXES,’” the card reads, ”I find that I must cut back on discretionary spending and gratuities. I wish it didn’t have to be this way for both of us.”

The card has sparked a firestorm of discussion about the mistreatment of wait staff and the attitude of the person who left it — a person who, incidentally, must be rather wealthy, because California’s Proposition 30 only affected people making $250,000 a year or more. On that kind of annual income, you’d think someone could afford to drop a few bucks for a tip.

The card is passive-aggressive and nasty and gross, punishing a server for something that isn’t the server’s fault. (Did the server singlehandedly elect President Obama and the entirety of Congress, let alone ensure the passage of Prop. 30?) But it also reveals a telling lack of understanding about how compensation for people in the service industry works.

Let’s take a look behind the curtain of the “wait wage,” one of the better-kept secrets in the U.S. People who haven’t worked in an industry where they routinely make more than $30 in tips every month might not be familiar with this sneaky little loophole in Federal minimum wage law.

Here’s the key information you need to know about the wait wage, courtesy of the Department of Labor: “An employer of a tipped employee is only required to pay $2.13 per hour in direct wages if that amount combined with the tips received at least equals the federal minimum wage. If the employee’s tips combined with the employer’s direct wages of at least $2.13 per hour do not equal the federal minimum hourly wage, the employer must make up the difference.”

That’s right: employers are only required to pay tipped employees $2.13/hour under Federal minimum wage law, as long as they collect enough tips to make up the difference. Thankfully, a number of states think this is totally ridiculous, and they’ve set their individual minimum wages for tipped employees higher. Those minimum wages, of course, are rarely living wages, and many service industry personnel rely heavily on tips for survival.

While the tip is often thought of as optional, custom in the United States would argue to the contrary, as would the presence of laws effectively expecting that patrons will partially cover the wages of their servers. While this might seem ethically astounding, it’s perfectly legal in many U.S. states. Before you stiff a waiter (or any other service employee) on the bill, you might want to think about the wait wage — and if you’re up for some activism, consider lobbying against the continued and unfair use of wait wages by the service industry.

Related stories:

Surprising Facts About Minimum Wage Workers

Politicians Don’t Know The Minimum Wage, But Know It’s Too Much

Employees at Billion Dollar Companies Fight for a Living Wage

Image credit: Reddit


Melissa G.
Melissa G4 years ago

If you can't afford the auto-tip you were givin for a party of 8(which can be hella work sometime) than maybee you shouldn't take 8 friends out to eat. No Class

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

my boyfriend is a delivery driver, but makes minimum wage because he has seniority. He brings home $50 to $100 a night in tips, cash, and of course gets his paycheck also. He also gets 30 cents to the mile, so he cleans up nicely. In fact he is the second highest paid person in the restaurant, second only to the district manager. I always tip if the waiter waitress does a good job (drinks stay full, they are friendly and courteous, check in ect) if they do not do a good job, they still get a tip, its just a very small one. We leave a standard 20% for great service, 15% if it was passable, 5% if you suck.

Debbi Ryan
Deb Ryan4 years ago


Christine Jones
Christine J4 years ago

Fortunately in Australia we are resisting the tipping culture to the best of our ability. Employers are required to pay employees a reasonable minimum wage. They get tipped if they are really good, so it's an incentive towards excellent service, not a right or a need.
Personally I can't afford to eat out, but a patron on that sort of salary is being very selfish and greedy not to tip. That sort of salary would last me about six years.

Angela Roquemore
Angela Roquemore4 years ago

If you''re supposed to be "cutting back," DON'T FREAKING EAT OUT UNLESS IT IS A BUSINESS MEAL!

Susan T.
Susan T5 years ago

Elizabeth K - if you resent having to tip write or call your Congressperson and urge them to change the laws. You are correct it would result in higher prices on the menu if employers had to pay waitstaff more since the menus were priced out with a specific labor cost.

I agree with Myriam G that the person leaving the card is the one with a sense of entitlement - that person felt he/she (why do I think it's almost assuredly a he??) could make his own rules to put more money back in his pocket. And BTW the only people whose income taxes are going up are people with over $400,000 a year income, so I'm supposed to feel sorry for him, that he doesn't want to tip a waiter who makes a fraction of what he makes? If he can't "make due" because of that extra 3.5% in taxes he is paying, don't go out to dinner.

That being said if your service sucks leave a cheaper tip. But be sure to let a service person know as you are going through your dining experience what is not working for you so they have an opportunity to fix it or at least show you that they are doing their best to fix it. If the food is cold, ask to have it warmed up. If it's taking a really long time, flag them down and ask them what is the hold up. If you really hate something, send it back. If you are polite, most waitstaff will make every attempt to honor your needs. If you feel waitstaff is rude, complain to the manager.

If you are getting bad service do something about it. If you are getting good service don'

Elizabeth Kryzanowski
Elizabeth K5 years ago

Myriam, that's quite a good-sized sense of entitlement you are carrying around. Are you working as a waitress to display your attitude or to serve people, with or without that extra charge called a tip?

I tip during my once-a-year outing to a proper sitdown restaurant, but truth be told, I resent having to tip. I think that employers should pay a decent wage then raise prices accordingly. If there is going to be massive pressure on people to tip, then what is the difference between that situation, and honestly higher prices o the menu?

One reason I hate the tipping system is attitude on the part of the wait staff. Service can be bad as hell, but the rest of them just circle the wagons and come to expect their tips.

Myriam G.
Myriam G5 years ago

Wow, I can't believe how entitled this person must feel to leave such an insulting message in place of a tip!!!

I used to be a waitress. I don't know about the United States, but in Canada, waiters have rights, and one of the first is to be respected. If I got such a message in place of a tip, I would have informed my boss, and if I could have identified the person, I would have refused to serve him/her next time he/she came to call. WITH my boss' permission and understanding.

But what is worse, and totally passive-agressive like it was pointed out, is that if one "has to cut back" on spending, then don't go to a restaurant! Making the waiter pay for your own frustrations is disgusting!

Andrew H.
Andrew H5 years ago

When I’ve had low-paid office jobs where the boss keeps piling more and more crap on me, no one comes along to give me a tip, so why is it my responsibility to bolster the wages of someone else low-paid? How dare anyone say I must be well paid just because I’m in a restaurant – if I had more money, I wouldn’t be in this £8 pizza house.

Roopak Vaidya
Roopak Vaidya5 years ago

A tip is a gratuity. The establishment should pay a fair wage. If, as a result the wait staff earn a bit more, what's wrong with that?